Joyce McMillan: Theatre and reflecting a nation

For the launch of her book, Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams, we asked Joyce McMillan to choose key moments from her three decades as our most essential voice on the artform and its relationship to our social and political landscape

Article by Alan Bett | 29 Jun 2016
  • The Slab Boys, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

If anybody reading this went to the Borders Book Festival to see Joyce McMillan, and if her voice gave way mid-event to leave a silent abyss... well then, we take full blame. A short and simple interview that The Skinny arranged earlier that day grew into a dense, verbose and full-on Scottish theatre 101. Which, we suppose, reflects the size and bearing of McMillan’s new book, Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams – an experly edited compilation of more than three decades of her criticism.

Stand the reviews on their own and they reflect not only the recent history of an artform but also a country. The true critic explores the connections between the art and our everyday lives. In addition, McMillan includes new material, mapping the cultural topography of Scotland's theatre; moving through points of evolution from left-wing companies Wildcat and 7:84 to The National Theatre of Scotland, spanning “Avant guard studio theatre, a strong line of political agitprop and (a) fantastic explosion of visual culture at the Citizen.”

She journeys from the early 80s to the present day: last year's award winning production of Waiting for Godot. From our well-known homes of theatre – The Traverse, Citizens and Tramway – to more obscure venues and the outer reaches of our country. How better to reflect not only the nation's theatre, but that nation as a whole?

We asked McMillan to choose productions she has found personally significant, and explain why. Her answers below are highly truncated; choices and words pruned with extreme prejudice from the passionate and informed hour-long dramatic monologue our conversation became.

The Slab Boys

JM: “My book starts after the initial run of The Slab Boys, so the initial huge impact of The Slab Boys isn’t in there, although there are some early revivals. But that was a great shape-changing moment, when John Byrne was just like, 'This factory in Paisley could be the centre of the world, and I’m going to write a play which, in its language and its vitality and its energy, assumes that’s the case.'

“That sort of sheer creative energy in inventing a language that reflected a fairly comprehensive view of the world in the 1950s, as seen from a wee carpet factory in Paisley, was just absolutely world-changing for people. When I first saw The Slab Boys I could feel barriers in my own brain just falling. Things don’t have to be parochial and marginal just because they’re Scottish. You can actually reshape the Scots vernacular language in a way that helps to redefine the whole postmodern world. That’s what The Slab Boys did!

“You could see it having the same effect on other people – they just came out absolutely babbling with exhilaration. Seeing your own landscape put front and centre, and made more brilliant than anything in the British theatrical landscape at the time... the impact of that is just impossible to measure.”

‘The opening of John Byrne’s The Slab Boys, at the Traverse in 1978... let me see, for the first time in my life, the truth that it was possible to be both absolutely Scottish and absolutely modern; and with it, my sense of Scottishness as an old-fashioned, dying thing left me for good.’

– Extract from Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams

(Continues below)

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A Satire of the Three Estates (Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis)

JM: “In the early years I was arguing about three things. Were 7:84 and Wildcat actually advancing the cause of socialism or left politics in Britain? The second thing I was asking was all about feminism, there was a huge surge in feminist and women’s writing in the 70s and that was a constant theme throughout the whole period. And then the third thing was about Scottish identity; how do you reflect and develop that in a way that makes it have a future instead of a couthy past?

“One of the narratives through which I developed that was my reviews of The Three Estates. [The 1985 Assembly Hall performance] was all couthy comedians, every comedy actor in the White Heather Club tradition. So, I watched and thought this was bloody awful. But the whole question is: did the show change or did I?

“Gradually, through the educative process of being a Scottish theatre critic I was becoming more and more tuned in to different qualities of Scots language. By the second time I saw The Three Estates I had begun to appreciate [Sir David] Lyndsay’s play a lot more, and to think, 'This is really important.' Then it got this gig in Warsaw [the play opened the International Theatre Meeting in ‘86] and suddenly the pressure of knowing it was going to be seen outside Scotland did something to this production and it became this great European classic about good governance.

“The front-and-centre couthy Scottishness began to fall away, and the Scottish context became a richness in a story about a universal problem – i.e. how do you get good government, how do you get the voice of the common people into government? So by the time it went to Warsaw it was absolutely brilliant!”

‘What often looked, last year, like a series of couthy comic turns, a garish and expensive summer pantomime, has suddenly emerged as a thrilling, elegant, muscular and heartfelt account of one of the great plays of European literature.’

From McMillan’s Guardian review of the Assembly Hall production, 1985

The Mahabharata

JM: “One key review in the book is The Mahabharata, Peter Brook’s great version of the Indian epic which was the opening production of the Tramway in 1988. Glasgow just plugged itself into this international theatre circuit and for a few years, while Neil Wallace was running the Tramway, it was completely exhilarating. And of course it was coming up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, so in the years around 89-90, the stuff that was coming from Russia was just mind-boggling, the boldness of it.

The Mahabharata was the turning point because it was the first really big international production that they had at the Tramway and it signalled that change in Glasgow’s theatre ecology, which is a thing which has really been allowed to drift.

“I think that Glasgow’s still an internationalist city but there’s not the drive from the city council to keep those European and transatlantic links. I mean, Robert Lapage was there, people were coming from Canada; it was really powerful, and Glasgow just invested so much money in it, the way Dundee are investing in arts and culture and design now. If you talk to the David Greig generation, who were 20 at that time, they’ll say that the things they saw at the Tramway during that period formed them as theatre makers and made them realise what the possibilities are.”

‘This event, The Mahabharata in Glasgow, is something that simply overflows the bounds of normal theatrical experience. For Glasgow, it represents a magnificent turning point, a key moment in the city’s re-emergence from decades of industrial decline to take its place again as one of the great second cities of the world, vigorous, cosmopolitan, handsome even in dilapidation, fizzing with creative energy and civic pride and – most important of all – living proof that a spirit of a city can survive the worst ravages and humiliations of the post-industrial age.’

From McMillan’s Guardian review of the Tramway production, 1988

Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams is out 30 Jun, published by Nick Hern Books, RRP £14.99